Triangle of Sadness arrives in UK cinemas on October 28.
Triangle of Sadness, the latest feature from Swedish filmmaker Ruben Ӧstlund, deals with a question that has been on the minds of many as of late – how do you solve a problem like the rich? Truthfully, the problem goes much further than individual billionaires, who are only the most acute manifestation of our society’s ills. It’s the larger issues, such as gender dynamics, the fundamentally inequitable structure of our society and even the worst impulses of human nature, that Ӧstlund seeks to dissect in this vicious little crowdpleaser.
In the first of its three sharply delineated acts, we are drawn into the relationship between two models, Carl and Yaya, with the latter being an influencer and the former a less well-off but still successful face of high-end brands. An argument over a restaurant bill spirals into a row that exposes the faultlines in their relationship. Carl turns sullen and hot-headed, frustrated that Yaya dismisses his attempts to prevent them from unconsciously falling into predetermined gender roles. Making more money than Carl doesn’t change the fact that, in the long term, Yaya needs a male partner to facilitate her eventual exit from modelling to ensure that she can continue living in a way she has become accustomed to. Whatever gains women might have made towards economic equality over the last hundred or so years, it seems they aren’t enough to overcome the structural inequalities that stalk relations between genders, particularly when it comes to trading one’s own body as a commodity.
In a bit of pitch-perfect casting, Carl is played by Harris Dickinson, whose early successes in Beach Rats and Postcards from London have seen him straddling a fine line between indie darling and eye candy. Meanwhile, Yaya is played by South African actor and model Charlbi Dean, who unexpectedly passed away last month. Even though her character admits to being an adept and reflexive manipulator, forever in the process of curating and manicuring her own image, Dean’s performance imbues Yaya with a brittle charm that offers an all-too-brief glimpse of the potential lost with her passing.
As Carl and Yaya take to a superyacht for a lavish holiday, fully comped thanks to Yaya’s influencer status, the film drastically expands its scope to a menagerie of overindulged wealth accumulators. It’s here that Ӧstlund takes his broadest swipes at the easiest targets. For example, Carl and Yaya dine with a disarmingly friendly older British couple whose family business has been “upholding democracy” for years with its landmines and hand grenades. Meanwhile, the wife of a Russian manure manufacturer insists that the entire crew go for a swim in the middle of dinner prep while also issuing orders in French like a grand duchess in the Tsar’s court. Look out for Alicia Eriksson’s turn as a stewardess with a positively agonised customer-service smile as she tries to resist this request.
At this stage, Triangle of Sadness is most compelling as the superyacht becomes a microcosm of our society. The course has been chartered according to the whims of the very wealthiest. But it is only made possible by the labour of an exponentially greater number of workers too exhausted and too stratified amongst themselves to take any meaningful collective action against the rich. This state of affairs persists even as the vessel is threatened by an increasingly hostile climate on the ocean. Triangle of Sadness lets you savour the buildup to the storm before it reaches its gut-churning climax. However, this momentum is somewhat deflated when the action moves on to the fate of the survivors who wash up on a desert island. But this is also where the film makes its darkest insinuations; although depriving the rich of their undeserved wealth results in a dramatic shift in power towards those with the right survival skills, the reorganisation of society doesn’t make it any fairer.
Triangle of Sadness goes so far as to suggest that sexual exploitation may be a certainty in any situation where demand exceeds supply. The only difference between the island and the rest of the world is that the scarcity of basics like food and water is real rather than manufactured by the inequitable distribution of resources. The gender politics interrogated in the first act come back to haunt the third when Carl pleads with Yaya for advice on the etiquette of trading sex for food.
Capitalism would have us believe that we are all temporarily embarrassed millionaires, that one day we too can rise to the obscene heights of wealth that would allow us to behave like the vulgar targets of Ӧstlund’s wrath. In fact, the rapturous reception the film received from the bejewelled audiences of Cannes, including a Palme d’Or win for Ӧstlund, suggests that we do one better. We can be good millionaires who are in on the joke when the bad millionaires get their comeuppance. The truth is, if you’re scrubbing floors or fixing your face into your very own service-industry smile, you might be able to advance to the level of the yacht Marxist’s captain, played by Woody Harrelson. Years of labour and accumulated experience might land you a job with a few decent perks, which almost certainly come at the expense of those beneath you. And, if you’re fortunate, you’ll have enough mental bandwidth left to indulge your guilt over being complicit in a broken system just before you start to wonder if you will go down with the ship.
Ӧstlund’s gleefully nasty satire may take its broadest swipes at the easiest targets, but this vicious little crowdpleaser harbours some dark observations on society and human nature.